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PlayStations power Air Force supercomputer

PlayStation 3 processors find an unlikely home in the Condor Cluster, a mega-computer built to undertake highly specific military tasks.

Condor Cluster
Air Force Research Laboratory

PlayStations have seen plenty of army action with games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Now they're doing real-life military duty as part of the Condor Cluster, a U.S. Air Force supercomputer whose off-the-shelf components include more than 1,700 Sony PS3 processors.

The computer--which will undertake a range of tasks including synthetic aperture radar enhancement, image enhancement, and pattern recognition research--also incorporates 168 separate graphical processing units. It's capable of computing about 500 trillion calculations per second, which makes it some 50,000 times faster than the average laptop.

As such, the Condor can read a whopping 20 pages of information per second. Even when 20 percent to 30 percent of the characters on a page are removed, the computer can recover all of the sentences and words with about 99.9 percent accuracy, according to the official Web site of the U.S. Air Force.

Affordability was a key motivator in the decision to use PS3 processors.

"The total cost of the Condor system was approximately $2 million, which is a cost savings of between 10 and 20 times for the equivalent capability," said Mark Barnell, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory's high-power computing division.

He said the Condor isn't made to compete with the world's largest general-purpose supercomputers, but is meant for highly specific military tasks. "The biggest thing for us was [that] the particular applications and the hardware we chose to build this computer with purposely match those applications well," he said.

Initial projects scheduled for the Department of Defense mega-machine, housed in Rome, N.Y., will include neuromorphic artificial intelligence research, in which programmers will "teach" the computer to read symbols, letters, words, and sentences so it can fill in human gaps and correct human errors.

The military has for several years now turned to video games to recruit and train personnel. The U.S. Army Experience Center in Philadelphia, now shuttered, also incorporated hardware, sporting computers preloaded with military video games, game controllers, and video displays that described military bases and career options.

The Condor Cluster, however, marks an unusual twist in the relationship between the Armed Forces and the game industry.

The Air Force says it believes the Condor Cluster currently holds the spot as the 35th- or 36th-fastest computer in the world, a standing that could improve even more with pending updates.